They were giants of women's tennis at a time when such notoriety didn't guarantee the kind of riches today's sports icons take for granted. Each was an outsider: one a Southern-born African American who grew up in Harlem, the other a South African Jew transplanted to London, both anomalies in their lily-white world.
These were reasons enough for Angela Buxton and Althea Gibson to draw toward each other not just on the court as doubles partners, but also many years later, during the moment of life-threatening crisis that confronts Gibson at the beginning of Bruce Schoenfeld's The Match: Althea Gibson ∧ Angela Buxton. This is in fact the book's central premise, yet it's the differences in the women's stories that make this narrative compelling.
Buxton, for example, took to the spotlight with some ambivalence, even keeping her "day job" at a tennis store in London after becoming the first British women's player to reach the Wimbledon finals in 17 years. By championship standards, her successes were modest: when a wrist injury cut short her career, she was left with a record that included no major singles titles. Gibson, in contrast, was the first African American to win a major tennis title, winning the French Open in 1956 and Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1957 (she won all three tournaments in 1958). She enjoyed much more longevity than Buxton, in part because she had no choice; unlike Buxton, she never saved much money and thus had to play far past her prime to make ends meet.
Schoenfeld honors Gibson and Buxton in parallel narratives that frequently intersect but ultimately stand on their own. Their childhoods, families and lovers pass by, vivid and real. Though played more than half a century ago, their greatest matches bound through Schoenfeld's rhythmic writing, as exciting as volleys shown live on ESPN. In the end, Schoenfeld scores a victory of his own in finding the drama that's often buried in stats, and the shades of love and sorrow that celebrity's glare obscures.